A man is murdered in the woods and his wife if raped. Terrible crimes that require explanation. What happened? Well, apparently is depends on who you ask, which is the theme of Roshamon (the title of the movie even gave birth to 'the rashomon effect'). Under refuge from a thunderstorm, three men, a woodcutter, a priest and a bandit recount all the potentially true eye witness stories heard in court that may, or may not explain how exactly the crimes in question occurred.
This is arguably one of Kurosawa's more accessible stories, which might explain why this is the movie the movie that put him on everyone's radar. There is a story told by the accused bandit, the wife who was raped, the murdered man (his voice is heard through a grisly bit of sorcery) and the woodcutter. The first three are told in court and highlight a fascinating little tidbit about human nature. Like it or not, people have a tendency to lie if it means they'll escape any kind of punishment. What's interesting is how the behaviors of each person involved in the case (the man, the wife and the bandit) shift from tale to tale. This provides some insight into the psyche of each witness telling their version of the events. We get to see, through their fear of the truth, some of their real opinions are of everyone else that was present. In essence, when people tell lies, we actually get a little bit of truth, although not the quite the one we were necessarily searching in the first place. Therefore deception is but another window into the true nature and ideas of Man. The woodcutter did not wish to tell his version of the story to the court, out of fear for getting involved. Who is telling the truth exactly? That's actually besides the point. This isn't a murder mystery after all, but a morality tale of sorts. Albeit one that doesn't quite explicitly provide the viewer with an lesson to learn. It is up to the viewer to construct their own based on what they have seen.
Both Tohiro Mifune as the crazed bandit (or not so crazed depending on whose story you choose to believe) and Machiko Kyo as the rape victim both give stunning performances. I read a lot about Mifune's performance, and justly so. Some of the eye witness tales make him to be practically a deranged psychopath, and Mifune delivers in spades. There is glint of madness in his eyes that would make anyone sane person uneasy. Kyo, particularly in the second and fourth stories, is positively haunting. The woodcutter's tale makes makes her the true villain of the story, and she inhibits the very nature of maliciousness and deception. Fascinating stuff overall.
If there is one criticism, it would be the dialogue between the priest, the woodcutter and the bandit (the one from the beginning, not Mifune) is a tad heavy handed near the end. Kurosawa seems to want the audience to understand precisely what themes were subject to the story. It's this viewer's belief anyone willing to venture into some Kurosawa material is intelligent enough to figure out at least most of what's going on here. The exchanges near the end feel very 'black on white'